It's 4th & 1. Game is on the line. Are you Clenched or are you YOLO?
This is the most vexing scenario in football because you only need one yard, which plays games with your head and heart. Some strategic minds focus on gaining that single yard, leaving little margin for error while creating high drama and summoning chain measurement.
Other more audacious coaches think far beyond those three feet from scrimmage, creating a dichotomy: Clenched and YOLO are our 4th & 1 mindset categories. One of these is an opaque butt reference - when you fail while scared, your ass is in for an unwanted adventure.
Under a YOLO mindset you merely die laughing while setting yourself on fire. Whenever I think about going for it on 4th & 1 with everything in the whole world at stake, I do so in Brent Musberger's voice:
Hey look, a 20-year old GIF with no volume that you can still hear in your head. Internet magic!
That's King Right 64-Y Shallow Swap on 4th & 1 while trailing with 90ish seconds left in the game, which those of you lucid 20 years ago immediately recognize as Holy Buckeye. It's a play Jim Tressel called with alarming regularity in 2002. In fact, it's the same play he called on 3rd down right before Holy Buckeye transpired.
A true paradox. Was Holy Buckeye Clenched or YOLO?
King Right was a play for all seasons, in which Tressel gave his quarterbacks the autonomy to a) keep it and run b) go shallow to Ben Hartsock in the flat, as Craig Krenzel did on that 3rd down c) float it up for Chris Gamble in the middle of the field, or d) create the signature play of a 14-0 regular season, via Michael Jenkins.
Verdict | Holy Buckeye: Clenched Play, YOLO Execution
It's still the most conspicuous 4th & 1 conversion for Ohio State this century, which casts an incredibly unfair shadow on another one that took place not even one year earlier.
For those of you who were not lucid 21 years ago, this was the play that swung the rivarly in Ohio State's direction. Our introduction to Tresselball was...let's scroll up a few inches:
leaving no margin for error while creating high drama.
That was its essence; the rich buttery aroma of barely beating bad and good teams alike. The 2001 season saw numerous cases of the play unaffectionately known as Dave, where a guard pulled, a handoff ensued and if everyone did their job correctly scrimmage moved in Ohio State's favor.
But if only 10 guys did their jobs correctly...that's the cruelty of an infinitesimal margin for error.
Message board scholars from that era insisted Tressel telegraphed this play all season long so that if the Buckeyes faced a critical 4th & 1 in Ann Arbor that season, they would be over-prepared. The lesson here is to believe everything you read on the internet, especially if the poster seems confident.
Verdict | Rivalry Swing: Clenched Play
The following season and barely a couple of months after Holy Buckeye happened in West Lafayette, Krenzel led another incredibly consequential 4th & 1 conversion in Tempe.
All 11 Hurricane defenders know what's coming and yet...hahahaha touchdown, Craig Krenzel.
Urban Meyer, whom we shall discuss later, was famously in love with one particular variety of the QB Keeper because when scripted to his liking it provided an extra blocker, usually Carlos Hyde, Zeke Elliott or Mike Weber. Future NFL running backs, repurposed as people movers. Some people eat spoonable food with forks; others believe that's inefficient bordering on reckless.
Tressel often used Maurice Clarett as a decoy - as he did in this case - because extra blockers are for cowards. Go ahead and argue with the results as you watch Krenzel score on the nation's top scoring defense riding a 34-game winning streak.
Like Holy Buckeye, they repeated their 3rd down call on 4th down. Deception: Also for cowards.
Verdict | Krenzel Sneak: Clenched Play
That game included a 4th & 13 conversion which made the final play in 2OT - which was another consequential 4th & 1 - a glorious reality. It began to feel like Ohio State would do nothing but win on 4th down whenever it was faced with a cocky Florida opponent in the 21st century.
*finger in ear* I'm being told that a century lasts a 100 years? Way too long, let's rethink that.
This is what it looks like when Dave doesn't work. And speaking of rethinking, note Ohio State doing this from its own 30 in a BCS title game. Audacious conservatism is a playbook oxymoron. We didn't include this to make us all sad again - it just gives us a rare opportunity to issue the strangest possible verdict.
Verdict | Glendale Death Rattle: YOLO Play, Clenched Execution
Speaking of 4th & 1 desperation in January, this is what Ryan Day dialed up on 4th &1 down 14-0 with a near-perfect field goal kicker, likely because he had already mentally fired his defensive staff but couldn't actually do so until the game was over.
Coleridge Bernard Stroud IV, the Bard of Pasadena, tossing sonnets at Route Man Marv.
In case you forgot - which like me, hopefully you have - Ohio State played Oregon earlier in the 2021 season and Day went for it on 4th down five times that afternoon. By the time the Rose Bowl kicked off, we should have been accustomed to his style when he sensed the Buckeyes would have to engage in a shootout.
Who knows, if Ohio State can field something better than a junior high school defense in the future, maybe he takes the field goal? Nah, that sucks. Darts in hearts is always superior.
Verdict | CJ to Route Man Marv: YOLO Play
Going for it on 4th & 1 in the Rose Bowl counts toward our list. This 4th & 1 conversion does not.
Harvesting Maryland's organs while the Terps were still breathing via starters playing in the 2nd half up 32 is a war crime on some continents, but ever since Chase Young's 2019 suspension Day has abandoned all morals and ethics whenever Maryland is the opponent.
COUNTERPOINT: Just throw it near Chris Olave is a conservative play call. You've gotta hear both sides. We're going to leave this one ungraded since it doesn't count anyway, but that doesn't temper the excitement for more wanton cruelty every time the Buckeyes play the state fair helmets.
Let's move to Meyer's love affair with The J.T. Barrett Play™ whenever anxiety consumed him, but most famously on 4th & 1 in what could have been the final play of a home loss to Michigan.
The Buckeyes needed one yard. They got exactly one yard. The subtle lesson here is if A.J. Alexander had remembered the low man wins when it comes to blocking in short-yardage situations, we would have been deprived of this drama.
So thank you, A.J., your suboptimal technique brought great anguish to people who deserve it.
Verdict | The Spot Was Good: Clenched Play
Two seasons earlier during Barrett's fourth sophomore year, Meyer dialed up the Barrett Play Adjacency, which converted his beloved extra blocker into a perimeter decoy in an attempt to loosen up the phone booth. You can blame this variant on Tom Herman.
Another 4th & 1, but on the road against the defending conference champions with everything at stake. This decision carried more emotional that strategic risk, as it was early in the 2nd quarter and failure would have meant Sparty taking over inside its own 1-yard line.
Verdict | Barrett Adjacency, East Lansing Edition: Clenched Play
Going for it was the only decision; you are free to quibble with the play call. Speaking of quibbling with 4th & 1 play calls against Michigan State:
Jones still insists this was the right decision. I choose to agree with no.34 on your screen above that he should have gotten the ball instead. El Guapo was averaging over 8 yards per carry in the 2nd half and Michigan State appeared to hate tackling him after three hours of fighting.
I'm contractually obligated to bring this up at least once per offseason until I expire. Friends, always read the fine print before you sign anything.
Verdict | Give it to Hyde: Clenched Play
As with the 4th & 1 in East Lansing a season later, the only decision here was going for it - the clock, score and stakes demanded it. Three months earlier with Braxton Miller unavailable, Ohio State faced 4th & 1 in what could have become a turning point play for the California Golden Bears.
In this case, the Buckeyes ran the option with Kenny Guiton on lead saxophone:
You didn't remember that one because the Buckeyes ended up scoring 52 points and winning easily, but at that moment the outcome had the potential to get dicey, especially with a backup quarterback making his first and only start on the road.
Verdict | Berkeley Jazz Club: YOLO play
Let's pivot back (forward) to 2014 when Barrett was unavailable for the entirety of the 4th quarter against Michigan, leaving Ohio State helplessly led by a 3rd string quarterback who was only known at the time for a bad tweet.
The J.T. Barrett Play™ was unavailable. So Meyer/Herman dialed up some misdirection with Zeke.
You remember that play. Alabama remembers that play. Oregon remembers that play. I'll just say this out loud, I'm not sure why the Buckeyes ever stopped running it, especially with this personnel.
That motion gave Zeke a split-second momentum advantage, something that Dave and The J.T. Barrett Play™ never provided. Michigan 2014 was a notable 4th & 1 utilization for a play that rarely failed to produce.
Verdict | Zeke Misdirection: Clenched Play
The following season when Indiana provided the most conspicuous warning of what was to come for the 2015 edition, the Buckeyes leaned on that play for a pivotal 2nd half 4th & 1.
Would you believe OSU completely abandoned pre-snap motion on any of the 12 Elliott carries the afternoon they hosted Sparty with everything at stake? No motion, just clenching.
Barrett had 15 carries in that cursed game, an imbalanced phenomenon which began in earnest following his ninth junior year. This was when Meyer went full-security blanket with his OSU Tebow while allowing the bread and butter plays that had been so effective to slip from memory.
We will close with one more pivotal 4th & 1 conversion, this one from Barrett's sixth senior year:
Curtis Samuel averaged a staggering 7.9 yards per carry during the 2016 season, which might make you wonder why he only got two of them in the loss to Penn State. He averaged almost 36 yards per carry that night, which football historians inform me is pretty good.
Meanwhile, Barrett had 17 carries that night, getting just 1.5 yards per rush. We summoned that Penn State game for a reason; on 4th & 1 against the Sooners, Ohio State dialed up what would later be known as The Brooklyn Dagger, with Samuel gaining his eventual and exact State College YPC average on that fateful snap.
Only the endzone prevented him from gaining more. Six points is always fair exchange.
Verdict | The Brooklyn Dagger: YOLO Play
I'm being told we can't close on The Brooklyn Dagger without actually showing it. Rules are rules.
That was 1st & 10. Equally effective on 4th & 1. And just like King Right, a play for all seasons.